Lessons to Be Learned From Richard Thaler’s Memoir, “Misbehaving”

Richard Thaler has always been an interesting figure in economics, and there is a lot to learn from the recently released memoir detailing his professional life, which Thaler appropriately titled “Misbehaving.” Thaler, now tenured at the University of Chicago, has long provided a number of insights into behavioral economics, and there is a great deal investors can learn from these insights. This is especially true for those who do not realize how human nature affects every aspect of the decision-making process, including those related to our investments and long-term financial plans.

Perhaps the most important lesson is to understand how we make decisions based on the way a situation is framed. Thaler uses a number of examples to show how irrational we are with regard to financial matters, using simple situations such as an individual who would not pay $10 to have his lawn mowed by someone else but would also not accept $20 to mow a neighbor’s lawn. There are obvious human errors in the way we value the things, and the way these things are framed is often the sole determining factor. For another example, a patient who is told that they have a 95 percent chance of surviving a surgery is much more likely to go ahead with the procedure than the person who is told that there is a 5 percent chance of dying.

So what does all of this have to do with finance? Well, it is necessary to understand how information is presented to us and to make decisions based on the actual information rather than the manner of presentation. This requires a willingness to thoroughly evaluate each opportunity, and it also requires that we begin to place more trust in the advanced metrics that eliminate presentation and focus solely on the pure data available. As humans, we like to believe that we are able to think rationally at all times, but there are too many times in which we make poor decisions –- financial or otherwise –- due to the way our choices are presented to us.

In reading Thaler’s book, it is clear that we have a lot to learn. Understanding how we make decisions and the manner in which we are affected by behavioral economics is key to overcoming our own inherent flaws. The process through which we overcome these flaws is quite difficult, but it is ultimately worthwhile for ensuring consistently sound financial decisions.